Life is a barrel of beer if you're a member of the Fetfatzes family. So why not a Barrel House?
Opening his own restaurant, after all, has been a lifelong dream for Marinos Fetfatzes, says his daughter, Eleni Subido. An immigrant from Crete who started here nearly four decades ago with hot dog carts, Fetfatzes built the Bella Vista Beer Distributorship with wife Olimpia into one of Philly's best destinations for a keg or case. Son Jordan helps run the distributor. Son Chris and his wife, Heather, branched off to open their own "beer cafe" and bottle shop called Hawthorne's (in Bella Vista's former space across 11th Street), then another bar on South Street West called the Cambridge.
So when Marinos decided to launch his own restaurant project, the Bainbridge Street Barrel House, with Subido to handle the books and oversee the dining room, and Jordan to curate the brews, the family specialty was naturally at its heart: craft beer, and plenty of it.
There are 25 rotating taps now flowing at the corner of Sixth and Bainbridge - a fountainhead that should cheer the well-wetted beer crowd of Queen Village and Bella Vista. There's a strong local presence on those tap handles, including some lesser-known breweries in farther reaches of Pennsylvania like Bullfrog (Williamsport), Neshaminy Creek (Croydon), and Old Forge (Danville). There is Sly Fox Chester County bitter on the low-fizz hand pump. And naturally, there is beer in barrels, too, like the Round Guys Barrel Rider and Arcadia Loch Down Scotch ale that each pack an extra layer of boozy complexity. That doesn't even count the 200-plus-bottle list, which offers some bigger, cellared brews, from Petrus to Tilquin, 't Gaverhopke, Russian River, and Stillwater.
Paired with a nicely rehabbed corner space that was for years a derelict storefront, this room, with its comfy banquette and 22-seat bar, has the potential to be a great neighborhood restaurant, too.
I like chef Eric Paraskevas' concept for the menu: personal takes on familiar fare that is more "pub" than "gastro."
Unfortunately, the cooking was so inconsistent that even a great beer list could not wash away its flaws. The house-made hummus was as stiff as drying wallpaper paste. The duck confit was tender, but strangely dry. The olive oil cake was so dense, I had to peel it like putty from the roof of my mouth.
It was one of the few times my mouth wasn't burning with unexpected spice. Paraskevas is self-aware that his time as chef de cuisine at Lolita raised his own tolerance for heat. And while I anticipated a punch in the chili (not bad) and the peanut-dusted "hot" chicken wings (whoa, baby), a heavy hand on the spice singed a few unexpected palates, from the fried chicken to the orecchiette with tempeh Bolognese, and the lamb sausage, a gamy, fennel-ized, house-ground link that was a highlight until my taste buds started wincing.
The chicken had other issues, beginning with a deep brown overcooking, and a braised fennel mop over the bacon stuffing that was fibrous and tough. The orecchiette, on the other hand, was such a curiosity of odd plate-fellows - a ground mushroom and tempeh "Bolognese" with horseradish and . . . white chocolate? - it was bound for popular failure. It has since been excised from the menu. But I kind of liked it, partly because it tasted far better than it sounds, but also because Paraskevas isn't afraid of wacky risks.
The risk is, they don't always work. On occasion, they pay off. His "Porkenstein," for example, is a towering tribute to pig on a bun, a house-ground pork-butt patty topped with clove-brined, apple-smoked ham, smoked pulled pork, then a slice of belly, tender from a braise and crisped on the griddle. It was a mouthful of flavorful textures that would been even better had it not been smothered in pink "special sauce."
But the message was clear: The best bets here come on a bun. That pulled pork, on its own with a crunchy slaw, had enough smoky savor and spicy tang to catch my attention (although the rosemaried vinegar sauce needs to be toned down). The Barrel House burger is one of the more traditional efforts - but it's also one of its best, a well-seasoned half-pound patty topped with melted Muenster and blades of bacon, whose IPA-infused mustard and spicy relish (cucumbers and habaneros) were in perfect harmony.
There were a few non-bun successes. The Thai curried mussels are nothing new, but were well done. The fried pickles (suddenly everywhere now) were just right, little bursts of hot, tangy juice from inside crispy crusts. Some extremely tender braised short ribs over silky pureed sweet potatoes offered solid bistro comfort. And I'm glad Marinos Fetfatzes insisted on at least one of his favorite Greek fixes: simple grilled octopus with ouzo-spiked dill tzatziki. In that vein, I wish Paraskevas would reprise the excellent homemade gyros he once made as a tribute to his own Greek heritage during his brief, more successful stint at Slate.
At the Barrel House, too many dishes just didn't make sense. A nice pork chop over brussels-sprout hash in chorizo sauce sounds like something I want to eat. But stuff that chop with sweet apples, pears, and sage, and it's an unwieldy misstep. One "Porkenstein" per menu is more than enough.
The urge to cook with beer is sensible here. It's a natural in the mussels. And the much-used mustard, enlivened with hoppy Caldera IPA, is a success. But why go to the trouble to create a crystal-clear "beer consomme" only to serve it over rumpled ravioli with minced chicken and mushroom that burst messily into the broth because the coarsely chopped stuffing was unbound?
Such details should be vetted before a dish hits the dining room. I'd also suggest: a lot less lemon in the lemon buerre blanc for the otherwise nicely grilled salmon; a crust more durable for the cheesecake than the ground Cookie Crisp cereal that went soggy on the bottom; and for the zeppoli, a sauce more substantial than the skimpily drizzled syrup.
Of course, when all else fails, any number of libations sloshing around in actual barrels on the Barrel House's bar would make a suitable liquid dessert - from high-octane ales to premixed cocktails aged for weeks in Cognac or new oak casks, like the "To Have or Have Not" with agricole rhum, maraschino liqueur, citrus, and Red Rose bitters. The only problem is that there are a lot of great beer and cocktail lists in Philly now. And this Barrel House could be so much more if only its kitchen could find a focus as compelling as the Fetfatzes family's talent with beer.
Inquirer restaurant critic Craig LaBan hosts an online chat at 2 p.m. Tuesdays at philly.com.
Next Sunday, Craig LaBan reviews Southern Cross Kitchen in Conshohocken. Contact him at email@example.com.